Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve

Here is a poem called "New Year's Eve" written by Carl Dennis. I love this poem all year round--it reminds me to examine what I think of as luck, good fortune or anything I attribute to myself or my Higher Power. For every case--whether car accident or cancer diagnosis--where we say, "My Higher Power was watching out for me," what are we really saying about God or our fellow human beings?

Here is the poem. And tonight is the night to reflect. Thank you for coming here to Love in the Time of Cancer to share our life. I wish you peace.

New Year’s Eve

However busy you are, you should still reserve
One evening a year for thinking about your double,
The man who took the curve on Conway Road
Too fast, given the icy patches that night,
But no faster than you did; the man whose car
When it slid through the shoulder
Happened to strike a girl walking alone
From a neighbor’s party to her parents’ farm,
While your car struck nothing more notable
Than a snowbank.

One evening for recalling how soon you transformed
Your accident into a comic tale
Told first at a body shop, for comparing
That hour of pleasure with his hour of pain
At the house of the stricken parents, and his many
Long afternoons at the Lutheran graveyard.

If nobody blames you for assuming your luck
Has something to do with your character,
Don’t blame him for assuming that his misfortune
Is somehow deserved, that justice would be undone
If his extra grief was balanced later
By a portion of extra joy.

Lucky you, whose personal faith has widened
To include an angel assigned to protect you
From the usual outcome of heedless moments.
But this evening consider the angel he lives with,
The stern enforcer who drives the sinners
Out of the Garden with a flaming sword
And locks the gate.

                                    --Carl Dennis

Friday, December 27, 2013

Remembering a Waiting Room

John’s surgery today. I’m at St. Peters Hospital in the waiting room. I watch the other waiters—family members, loved ones of patients. Some are young parents and their little ones are in surgery, some I think wait for an older patient—adult children are the waiters, some, like me, are spouses.

I get my coffee and read my new Louise Penny book. Inspector Armand Gamache is such good company here. Wise and calming.

I am aware of the routine of this room. The docs come out to chat, to give an update, to tell how the surgery went. As they speak to the families in this room I hear joking, “Oh she’s awake—giving us a hard time.” I see the tension relieved. Docs squat or get down on one knee—eye level with family. Never stand over seated family to deliver news.

But I stand up to stretch and see the row of doors behind me—closed doors, no windows, each one labeled:  2915 Consulting Room (In Use), 2916 Consulting Room (Vacant). And I stand and I stare at those doors.

I remember.

I was 18 years old. Allegheny General Hospital. My father was in Intensive Care. I was in the ICU waiting room with my mother and brothers. Other family members came and went. We sat with other patient’s families and talked to them for those three long days. I watched the pattern of movement. Even then I was a watcher.

Sometimes—like here—the doctors came out to the family in the waiting room and talked to them—gave an update, described changes in status.

But sometimes a nurse  would call a family into one of the small private rooms and those families never came back to waiting. Once, when I was in the hallway,  I saw a family leave the little room. They  stood near the elevator, crying. I knew.

So when, on the third day, they asked our family to step into the small private room, I knew. I knew before my mother did. I knew before the doctor took her hand. I knew before my brother held my arm.

Today, at St. Peter’s I look at those doors at the edge of the waiting room and I wonder at the collective pain that gathers there. I wonder if it aggregates and if they ever use sage to “clear” the rooms or if they bless them when they are empty, or maybe sprinkle holy water on the tables where wives and brothers drop their heads in surprise, shock and grief?  I hope they do.

I remember.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Surgery--The Third Time Around

John is having his third surgery on Friday, and we realized today that we had made the same decision unbeknownst to each other: We decided to ignore it until Christmas is over.

The folder with paperwork is sitting on the desk, a little brochure with baffling diagrams and line drawings is unopened, the pre-op instructions are still in the envelope. Oh well.

It reminds me of what its like after the first baby. A friend who has three kids likes to say it this way: With baby one you breast feed for a year, sterilize everything, barely let anyone hold the baby but you. With baby two you breast feed for a few months and then open a jar of baby prunes, wipe off any spit up with your thumb and hand the baby to anyone near by. And with baby three—you bring them home from the hospital and put them on the floor and give them a pork chop.

So this is John’s “pork chop” surgery. On the 26th we’ll crack the code and pack our bags. His will have a few toiletries and a book; mine will have the caregiver notebook, snacks and phone numbers. And now I’ve added an I Pad and an IPhone, and the snacks have changed from Twizzlers and chocolate to almond butter, walnuts and kale chips.

It’s not that I care less this time but more that I’m so aware of what I cannot control. Some things will go worse than I hope and some things will go better than I expect and there will be surprises—always surprises. And there will be miracles—always miracles of people, and process and timing.

So tonight we’ll have Christmas Eve: first the Mall for amazing people watching, then Thai food for dinner, then a movie and then to church for the beautiful service at midnight.

On Christmas morning a blended bash of kids for breakfast and then to our true family holiday at Susan’s. Surrounded by all that love and laughter we’ll be fortified for Friday’s adventure.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Solstice--In the Dark Street Shineth

Off we go trailing shopping lists and credit card receipts. Christmas is next week. We may complain about our errands and even about some of the folks on our list, but we do enjoy the festivity the holidays bring to our gray December days.

It’s no coincidence. The holidays that celebrate light, Hanukah and Christmas, are aligned with the seasonal transit of the sun. It’s a leftover from earlier times when the religions of nature led all of the others. There was good reason, then as now, to run from the darkness.

We know that ancient man feared that the sun had died.  It was his terror that the heat and light were gone. To coax the sun god back our ancient relatives created rituals.  The Druids lit bonfires. Now we celebrate with candles and lights in our windows.

Spirituality is a way out of darkness and into hope and joy. The vehicle is mystery and a miracle, whether it’s oil that lasts eight days or the birth of a baby in a barn.

In the Northern Hemisphere this is a time when we face our vulnerability. Weather is the least of it. We all have moments of darkness: our grief, fears and regrets. The darkness we fear most, of course, is the grave. We still think we can outrun it. So some of us go to the Caribbean and some to sunlamps or light boxes; many pursue spirits, religious or distilled. Like our ancestors we too want the sun to come back and give us life again. So we go to the stores and burn up our credit cards; we sacrifice our savings as we gather at the mall where we may find what passes for community.

But we still fear the dark. Much of what we do this time of year is about distraction. Not unlike whistling when we pass a graveyard, now we sing and shop and light candles and eat too much. And we complain. A lot. But maybe our railing against our holiday chores is itself a part of the solstice. Now when we are oppressed by darkness –when our primitive fears can be felt even through layers of advertising and anti-depressants-- we are drawn to the lights and to other people as our defense against the dark, just as our ancient relatives were drawn to stars and fires.

We talk of holiday depression as if it’s somehow wrong or an aberration. But these holidays we’re celebrating, Hanukah and Christmas, are also about darkness. Sometimes we forget that. But it’s true: the flip side of each story is about the darkness at the edge of the light.

The words of this Christmas carol could just as well be a Solstice song: Yet in the dark street shineth, the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

We’re fighting something ancient, natural and necessary. Occasionally we need to feel the darkness—even symbolically--like we sometimes need a dark night or a wild storm.

So maybe there is another way to experience this day. On this, the darkest night, what if we allowed the darkness and went toward it, daring ourselves to sit still before we light the candles or the tree. What if we sat a moment seeing the tree in darkness--and breathed. That’s what solstice is about. We can enter the darkness and emerge transformed. We can stand it.

On this day the sun is at the most southern point of its transit. Tonight is the longest night of the year. Starting tomorrow our days will grow longer again. The cycle is astronomical and holy. On this night we are as ancient as ever.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Five Wishes for Living and Dying

We have been told over and over about making a will and having a healthcare proxy and medical power-of-attorney. Often we put off taking this important step because 1. It makes us think about death, but 2. It makes us think about our relationships with family and friends.

In choosing an executor, proxy or power-of-attorney we face hard facts about who we trust, who we share values with and the relationships with those who might expect to represent us but we’d rather not. Tricky emotional business. So we see another movie, read another article about Vitamin D and think about retirement in a sunny place.

But really. If it’s hard to think about your death then think about the torture for your kids and friends when they have to sort things out or worst, guess at your medical preferences. It’s not just that paperwork after all but the conversations you must have with those you designate. You have to tell them—more than once --if you want lots of lifesaving measures, none at all, or maybe a little bit of whatever the latest strategies are.

Recently a friend introduced me to a new and quite comfortable way of going about this recording and conversing. It’s called “Five Wishes” and it’s a simple mini workbook that lets you write down these five things:

The person I want to make decisions when I can’t
The kind of medical treatment I want or don’t want.
How comfortable I want to be.
How I want people to treat me.
What I want my loved ones to know.

I’ll put the link below to the Five Wishes website so you can learn more but just think about those five items listed above. If you have been a caregiver or a waiter in a hospital waiting room, wouldn’t you have loved to know some of that from the patient—beforehand? Give your loved ones that gift.

The mini Five Wishes workbook—or just those questions listed above also make a great family dinner conversation, an add on to your book group, and definitely something to bring up when your doctor says, “So do you have any other questions?”

Here’s the link to learn more: